‘He’s gonna have a chance to be special’: College coaches react to 2023 NBA draft

Unlike the 2022 NBA draft, which saw the top three picks swap positions constantly in the hours before the Orlando Magic were officially on the clock, there was absolutely no drama with the No. 1 pick in the 2023 edition. Victor Wembanyama‘s name had been written in pen in that spot for years.

Where there was a level of debate was with the No. 2 pick. Still, in reality, there was no suspense; Charlotte had zeroed in on Alabama‘s Brandon Miller and preferred him to G League Ignite’s Scoot Henderson for much of the process.

Was that the right choice?

Following what was ultimately a fairly straightforward NBA draft, we reached out to a dozen college coaches around the country to get their takes on good picks, bad picks and everything in between. They were fairly split on the Miller vs. Henderson debate, but there was little question Miller was the best NBA prospect in the men’s college game last season.

“He made shots at an elite level. Played with tremendous poise, affected the game. A big part of it is he doesn’t force things. He can go four or five minutes without getting a shot or touch, then score six or eight points real quick,” one coach said. “Early in the year, he struggled going to his left, but did a really good job finishing with his right. Then he got better in that area. He’s a three-level scorer, a high free-throw-attempt guy.

“He needs to improve on the defensive end of the floor. But on the offensive end, he should be able to come in and have an impact right away. He has to continue to get stronger, but that’s going to come with time.”

Another coach with knowledge of both players’ games thought Henderson might have been the slightly better prospect, but Miller simply was a better fit for the Hornets — although there are some concerns about his ability to get his own shot.

“Scoot is potentially a more dynamic player with his athleticism and physicality at a position that is so significant in the NBA these days,” he said. “I really do think he could have a Russell Westbrook sort of impact in his career at some point. In a vacuum, he’s probably the selection at 2. [But] with [LaMelo] Ball being there and the way the roster is constructed, it makes sense to go with Miller. He has great size, big-time shooting — something that everybody really values. A guy who is going to be a cornerstone player for them.

“To be a primary scorer — guys that can get 18 to 22 points per game — you have to have some offensive versatility, some ability to put it on the floor a little bit. That’s not really a part of Miller’s game — guys can get underneath him and pressure him and bother him. His biggest impact on the game is his ability to shoot it. Catch and shoot it. Offensively, he can be like a Paul George or a Khris Middleton. George has more diversity to his game, but I think that’s the kind of vision they have for him. And with a great passer like LaMelo, he’ll make the game easier for everyone else.”

One coach who watched Henderson in high school thinks his fit in Portland — on a roster that still includes Damian Lillard — will help him early.

“I think Scoot is going to an ideal situation next to guards like [Anfernee] Simons and Dame; that’s going to allow for him to focus more on specific tasks and a role rather than trying to do everything all at once,” he said. “His immediate impact on winning is going to be seen on day one. He’s also the type that, despite being a rookie, he can help on the defensive end thanks to his motor, length and instincts. As long as he can show potential as an off-ball threat and a willingness to be that guy, he’s gonna have a chance to be special.”

One coach who scouted Miller in high school and faced him this past season echoed some concerns about Miller’s ability to deal with defenders bothering him with physicality and also brought up the questions about Miller’s consistency and motor before he got to Alabama.

“It’s going to be about just how athletic he is and how capable he is of playing through contact and amidst physicality,” he said. “Can he show consistency at the NBA level against greater athletes and length and size? I think he’s the perfect plug-in type that can make shots and initiate offense, but he’s been littered with consistency issues his entire life and didn’t exactly do great in the NCAA tournament. So was Alabama a one-off, or is he a new man?”

Here are college coaches’ observations on some of the other big storylines from Thursday’s draft:



The plays that made the Rockets draft Cam Whitmore

Check out some of the highlights at Villanova that have made Cam Whitmore the No. 20 pick for the Houston Rockets.

The biggest news of the first round was Whitmore’s drop from projected top-10 pick — and top-five pick earlier in the draft process — all the way to Houston at No. 20. A five-star prospect coming out of high school, Whitmore was hampered by injury to start his Villanova career and then battled inconsistency in what was ultimately a disappointing campaign for the Wildcats.

“I think he’s really talented. In an NBA game that has more space, kind of less individual scouting, less zone defense, I think he would be more effective than he would be in a college game,” one coach who played against Whitmore last season said. “Villanova had lineups that weren’t great shooting lineups. If you’re scouting with him in mind, you can make the game difficult for him. He’s not a willing passer right now, you can crowd the floor, take away driving opportunities, disrupt timing as a shooter. In an NBA game, he’s not a featured guy. Around other talented guys, you’ll see how dynamic he can be. Big-time athlete, better shooter than people realize. But his reputation is as a low-energy guy; he didn’t necessarily vibe great with teammates and coaches, and his feedback from workouts was that he was not fully engaged. And then you combine that with medical concerns.”

ESPN’s Jonathan Givony and Jeremy Woo both reported Thursday night that there were issues with his medicals that turned some teams off from taking him in the lottery. And then once he fell out, teams that didn’t work him out in the pre-draft process let him drop a little more.

Yet, if the medical concerns end up not being a huge factor, Whitmore is a steal at No. 20, according to college coaches.

“As the college basketball season was going on, he never struck me as a top-five or top-seven pick. His impact on the game was more middle of the first round,” one said. “But this year’s draft outside of the top three guys, it was really wide open. He has as much physical talent as the guys that went No. 6-19, even though his impact wasn’t necessarily felt that way. But Cam Whitmore is an excellent pick. That jumps off the page. He’s a guy who was expected to be a top-five pick. Goes 20th, you still have to feel great about that.”

“Whitmore has a ton of natural ability,” another coach said. “Length, athleticism — but I do question his feel and decision-making, especially in a team setting. He has the ability to guard everyone but isn’t always engaged. He is a special athlete with a lot of raw ability, but he needs to translate his talent to winning and learning how to play.”



See why Jett Howard caught the eye of the Orlando Magic

Take a look at the highlights that make Michigan’s Jett Howard the newest member of the Magic.

While most of the first round — outside of Whitmore — went pretty much according to plan, Michigan‘s Howard going No. 11 to Orlando raised some eyebrows. The Magic seemed like a prime candidate to target shooting at that spot in the draft, but with Kansas‘ Dick and UConn‘s Hawkins also on the board — going two and three picks later, respectively — it felt early for Howard.

Here is how some coaches viewed those three players.

On Howard:

“I thought Jett was going to go much later. A lot of the feedback I had been hearing was teams were not as high on him as they were earlier in the year. Beautiful shooting stroke, projectable from that sense. But not a whole lot else. Not impacting the game in a big way aside from shooting. He made a lot of tough shots but not a lot of creation for others. Kobe Bufkin was the one that made Michigan go. Defensively and offensively, I felt Jett was trending more toward the 20s.”

“I’m a supporter. Good size for the wing position. Excellent shooter. Very confident. Can do enough off the bounce to keep you honest. Capable of getting hot quickly, and you will have to honor him as a perimeter threat. But it will be a major adjustment for him defensively.”



See why Gradey Dick was drafted by the Raptors

Check out highlights from Gradey Dick at Kansas as he prepares for a career with the Toronto Raptors.

On Dick:

“He’s got the size, I anticipated him being the first of those three to go. Pretty good athlete. Factoring in recency bias, you watch games in the playoffs, [Max] Strus and [Duncan] Robinson, bigger wings [like Dick] who can shoot it, can plug right in.”

“Gradey Dick is an elite-level shooter with great size and great length. He’s way more athletic than he looks. He does have a major deficiency on the defensive end of the floor. He struggled to guard third or fourth options on average college teams. His ceiling in the NBA will really depend on who he can guard at the next level. It needs to drastically improve.”



The highlights that made the Pelicans draft Jordan Hawkins

Check out the best plays that made the New Orleans Pelicans draft Jordan Hawkins in the 2023 NBA draft.

On Hawkins:

“I think Hawkins is the best shooter in the draft. The shots he makes are different from anyone else in the draft. The other guys are catch-and-shoot guys, one-cut shot guys. Jordan is flying around screens all game long. Incredibly quick trigger. He has to be in a situation where the coach is going to use him to maximize his strengths. The thing that those other guys have over him is size and physical strength. Hawkins is still pretty slight.”

“Hawkins, I really think, can be a very good NBA player. He’ll be able to carve out a lengthy career. He’s the best pure shooter in the draft. People also don’t talk about him enough from a defensive standpoint. UConn went as he went. When he was playing his best basketball, UConn was nearly unbeatable. They tore through the NCAA tournament when he was playing well. That shows the impact he has on a team. And from his own player development, he made a huge jump from last year to this year. He could have another big jump in him from college to the NBA.”



The highlights that made the Mavericks draft Dereck Lively II

Check out the highlights that made the Dallas Mavericks draft Dereck Lively II in the 2023 NBA draft.

Lively was ranked as high as No. 1 coming out of high school, an elite defensive player with skill, touch and plenty of potential on the offensive end. He suffered a calf injury before his lone season at Duke, though, then produced only in flashes, finishing his freshman campaign averaging just 5.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game..

But on Thursday night, Lively ended up just about where he was projected in ESPN’s early mock draft last June: He was picked 12th by Dallas. Despite his lack of production, the consensus among college coaches was that Lively was well worth a late-lottery selection.

“Watching Dereck Lively play in high school, I expected him to be a top-10 pick. As the year went on at Duke, he struggled, but the reaction was more negative than I anticipated,” one coach said. “Guys that fit the Dereck Lively mold are generally given the benefit of the doubt more than he was. There was a pretty quick drop in his status within this year’s draft. But after the Klutch pro day and some of the workouts, he started shooting back up the board. With his size and fluidity, he has the potential to make shots. Vertical spacer, affect shots around the rim. Worth taking a chance on despite not having a super productive freshman year.”

“He’s f—ing awesome,” one ACC coach said. “He’s a game-changer on defense and proved he can make perimeter shots. I love him. He’s the only guy on [Duke’s] team last year that worried me. Elite rim protector, lob threat and pick-and-roll defender.”

While his ceiling is what jumps off the page, one coach mentioned his high floor making him a good pick at No. 12.

“His potential is super high, but I think it’s a great ‘risk’ because, worst case, he’ll be good in pick-and-roll both offensively and defensively because of his length and athleticism around the rim,” he said. “He has some skill that is still developing. The tougher he gets, the scarier he’ll be. I love his upside.”

Only one college player in the top five

For the first time since 2001, only one college player was selected in the top five, with Wembanyama from overseas, Henderson from G League Ignite and Amen and Ausar Thompson coming from Overtime Elite. Is this a sign of things to come or a one-off occurrence, or something in between?

“I didn’t think a whole lot of it,” one coach said. “Wemby is a generational thing, that’s going to happen every 10 or 15 years. Everybody appreciates Wemby’s greatness. The Thompsons are a rare situation. They were at the forefront of the Overtime Elite program when people didn’t even know what it was. They weren’t considered the highest-profile guys at that point. That’s a credit to Overtime. And then there was Scoot and the G League. I don’t anticipate it being a trend. But getting projected lottery picks, that’s kind of the nature of the [Overtime and Ignite] programs. College basketball is always going to be strong and produce a good number of the top picks.”

“I think it’s a one-off deal,” another coach added. “Since G League Ignite started, what percentage [of the top five draft picks] have been non-college players? [Five of 15 in the past three drafts.] And four of the five were this year. I think that answers it.”

One coach said it was simply a sign of the growing number of paths for elite prospects to take to the NBA.

“I don’t know if it’s necessarily a one-off, but I don’t think it’s a trend either,” he said. “These elite prospects have so many options now. They can go to college, they can go G League, they can go Overtime Elite, they can go overseas. There’s different ways to carve your path, not just go to college and be one-and-done. We’ll find out over the next three to five years, the guys that skip college — was it a good move long term, or was it short term and didn’t pan out? It’s going to be a year-to-year basis.”

Here’s something worth noting: The first two picks in ESPN’s early 2024 mock draft? Ron Holland and Matas Buzelis, both of whom will suit up for G League Ignite. And the third pick is Zaccharie Risacher, who plays in France.



The best plays that made the Magic draft Anthony Black

Anthony Black is drafted at No. 6 by the Orlando in the 2023 NBA draft.

Anthony Black is the second college player selected

After Miller, the next college player went at No. 6, where the Magic took Black. The one-and-done Arkansas guard really boosted his stock late in his high school career, becoming a five-star prospect after not playing on one of the big shoe-company circuits. A productive 6-foot-7 point guard? They don’t come around every day.

“I always really liked Anthony Black, really good feel, good passer, great size,” one coach said. “The shooting has been a concern — he didn’t shoot it well this year. But I was kind of taken with his competitiveness. On a team that had guys coming from all different backgrounds — transfers, McDonald’s All Americans, one-and-dones — he was the most committed to Arkansas and winning. His physical profile with the passing made for an interesting pick.”

“If you look at his game, there’s no real holes,” another coach added. “He needs to continue to improve his perimeter shot, which will come over time. What he did at Arkansas, from never playing full time PG in high school or AAU to going there and being given the keys, it’s a hard job for a freshman. The fact he did that really showed a lot. From a defensive standpoint, with his length and athleticism, for the most part he’s going to win his individual rebounding battle. He’s also just an unselfish player. He’s a unique top-level prospect.”



The best of newest Warrior Brandin Podziemski

Check out some of the highlights that have made Santa Clara’s Brandin Podziemski the newest Golden State Warrior.

Two mid-major players picked in the first round

Looking at the list of college programs represented in the first round, two stand out: Santa Clara and Belmont. Both teams had players announced by commissioner Adam Silver, with Golden State taking Santa Clara’s Brandin Podziemski and Indiana opting for Belmont’s Ben Sheppard.

Santa Clara is now one of just five programs to have a player selected in the top 20 in each of the past two seasons, joining Kentucky, Kansas, Duke and Baylor. The Broncos had Jalen Williams picked in the lottery last year.

Podziemski’s is a fascinating story. He was a back-end top-100 prospect in high school and went to Illinois, where he played just 16 games as a freshman, scoring 22 total points in 69 minutes. He then transferred to Santa Clara and broke out, averaging 19.9 PPG, 8.8 RPG and 3.7 APG while shooting 43.8% from 3.

“Podziemski’s versatility and ability to score on all three levels were visible on film, but when you see it up close and personal, it’s different,” one opposing coach said. “After the game, I told my staff, ‘that’s what a lottery pick looks like.’ Podziemski is a unique guard, because not only can he score and shoot, he also rebounds at a high rate, which is hard to prepare for at the guard position. He played with supreme confidence and had his stamp on the game from start to finish. It is no surprise to me that he was a top 20 pick and it shows you have opportunity to play your game at any school. The NBA will find you.”

“He plays with extreme confidence and is an elite shot-maker,” a second coach added. “He has the ability to create space and has a great feel for the game.”

Another coach liked his game, but was surprised at how high he went.

“I don’t think he’s a first-round guy, personally,” he said. “However, there are a few things he does that may give him a chance to make it — motor and rebounding being the main two. And his size for the position is solid. But ultimately I just don’t really see that level.”

Sheppard, meanwhile, was a four-year player at Belmont, steadily improving each season. In his final season with the Bruins, the 6-6 Sheppard averaged 18.8 PPG and shot 41.5% from 3.

“He has an NBA skill set,” one Missouri Valley Conference coach said. “He’s not a one-dimensional guy. I thought he could guard. He’s really, really fast. Great legs. He can shoot. He’s got good size. He’s an above-average defender. To be good in the NBA, you have to sprint to the corner. He can sprint to the corner. Can he guard his spot? Can he be a secondary ball handler? He showed some flashes. He has unbelievable stop-start speed. I thought he had unbelievable conditioning. He makes hard shots, he’s got good size and what he did in college translates to the NBA.”



The best plays that made the Heat draft Jaime Jaquez Jr.

Check out the best plays that made the Miami Heat draft Jaime Jaquez Jr. in the 2023 NBA draft.

Perhaps the first-round pick that drew the most praise in the moment on Thursday night was Miami taking the UCLA wing at No. 18. Jaquez was one of the best players in college basketball the past few seasons, helping lead the Bruins to the Final Four in 2021 and starting 126 games in his career. He steadily rose up draft boards over the past couple of months, showing the same competitiveness and mentality in workouts that made him so successful in Westwood.

“I’m pulling for Jaime because he is a great basketball story,” one Pac-12 coach said. “He worked his butt off to become one of the best players in the country. He could have gone last year but came back to lead UCLA to a Pac-12 title, took his game to an even higher level and was rewarded with a draft pick from an organization in the business of winning year after year. He is an example of toughness, hard work and everything good about college basketball. He truly deserved to enter the NBA through the main door as a first-round pick. He’ll be going to a place that historically values winners, values toughness and values work, and from day one he will exemplify on the court the Heat’s core values.”

One coach did think the top 20 might have been too high, though, only because of his age: Jaquez is already 22, the oldest player selected in the top 20 by almost 15 months.

“I really like him. I didn’t like him in high school, but I really, really like him now,” he said. “It’s hard. In a normal year and a normal draft, feels like he’s in the 40 range. He’s someone that plays 12 years in the NBA, but what you see is what you get. There’s just probably not another big jump in him.”



Trayce Jackson-Davis’ highlight reel

Check out some of the highlights that have made Trayce Jackson-Davis a member of the Warriors.

When polling coaches on the best second-round picks and the biggest steals and surprises in the latter part of the draft, one name kept popping up: Trayce Jackson-Davis. The Indiana All-American was slotted in the early second round of ESPN’s final mock draft but ended up falling all the way to No. 57.

“He was a guy you could’ve made an argument to take in the first [round]. Second-to-last pick of the draft is a total steal,” one coach said.

“I was surprised TJD dropped that low,” another coach added. “I didn’t think he was a first-round pick. He can shoot the ball — he just chose not to shoot the ball for whatever reason. He’ll be a guy who can make jump shots in the NBA. He’s a very good passer for his size. He’s a good enough athlete to play in the NBA. The question is, can he be an undersized 5? His shot will develop to the point where he’ll make jumpers as a professional.”

A third coach said, “He’s not your modern 4-5 in the NBA, but he’s a hell of a college player and he produced at an extremely high level. At minimum, he’ll be able to help in practices and you can put him in games next year. He’ll rebound, he’ll battle and you can play him in the post.”

Other quick thoughts

One coach thought UConn’s Andre Jackson Jr. was the steal of the second round. Jackson was the engine for UConn’s national championship run and was garnering first-round buzz after the NCAA tournament. He ended up falling to No. 36 but should be a good fit with Milwaukee.

“There’s no reason Jackson can’t be a guy that plays multiple positions, handles the ball. He’s a good player. He’s a jump shot away. If he had a jump shot, he would be a lottery pick,” the coach said. “Plays really hard, knows how to play, defends, willing passer, athletic. He’s one of those guys, when you’re scouting, you’re really, really interested by him, then you see him live and you’re like, f—, this guy can play. Teams backed off him at UConn, and he found ways to be productive. That’s hard for a young player, when teams back off and dare you to shoot it. It can be a confidence thing. But not only was he confident, he made people change their game plans.”

Nick Smith Jr. entered college as the favorite to be the first college player selected in the NBA draft. After a season at Arkansas filled with injuries and inconsistency, though, he dropped all the way to No. 27, where he will reunite with former AAU teammate Brandon Miller in Charlotte.

“Once he fell past 20, any team that was getting him was getting a huge steal in the draft,” one coach said. “Even if it doesn’t work out, he was the No. 1 high school player, showed flashes at Arkansas, and was in and out with injuries. But to be able to get a player of his caliber from a talent perspective in the 20s, you had to do it. Probably the steal of the draft. He’s skinny, didn’t really defend, missed six weeks — and I would’ve still taken him there. He’s really talented.”

Other picks that coaches thought were good value: Noah Clowney (No. 21), Leonard Miller (No. 33), G.G. Jackson (No. 45). And a few that raised some eyebrows: Julian Strawther (No. 29), Kobe Brown (No. 30), Jalen Pickett (No. 32).

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